The folks at Strand Theater are continuing to raise the bar in Baltimore. Their 12th season – titled In Her Own Image – will feature six productions, marking an ambitious expansion to their programming. Kicking it off is “Bright Half Life,” a 2015 Time Out Critic’s Pick by Oregonian Tanya Barfield.
On its surface, Barfield’s script treads very familiar ground: A nonlinear, episodic love story covering the entire life cycle of a romantic relationship by means of tiny snapshots of crucial moments between the lovers. Think (500) Days of Summer. But fortunately this play delivers real quality, and some interesting structural variations on that shopworn formula. As a two-hander, this bundle of stories is naturally intimate (which plays perfectly in Strand’s small space), and the transitions from memory to moment to then to now are so rapid-fire that they challenge both the actors and the audience to keep up.
…the performances in this fine production may well make one forget that it’s a work of stage fiction.
This is where K. Tony Korol-Evans’ direction shines brightest. By choosing not to reset any of the typical visual cues of time and place when transitions demand, she has established an unbroken flow, free of technical distractions and interruptions. The transitions, in effect, are non-existent save for a quick switch of light or environmental sound. Hats’ off to Robert Brooks and Brad J. Ranno, respectively, for their work in those areas. At times the characters shift by decades in an instant, from flirtatious first meeting to attending their daughter’s wedding, without changes in costumes or scenery. This strategy feels like a big risk, which pays off in big ways.
The cast of Ayesis Clay and Katharine Vary are 100% bought-in. They both do amazing work of presenting heightened emotion during crucial periods in their characters’ relationship. More astonishingly, Clay and Vary repeatedly turn on a dime, from one emotional extreme to its opposite and back again, and it is only because of this amazing skill by the actors that Korol-Evans’ strategy succeeds – and brilliantly so.
Worthy of particular mention is Vary’s portrayal of acrophobic panic while high atop a Ferris wheel. Its extreme anxiety elicits laughter at first, followed by a sense of oh no, this is real that’s so moving, one wonders whether a trigger warning might be appropriate. Clay’s moments of anger mixed with love are so … true … honestly, it’s trite to say but valid nonetheless, that the performances in this fine production may well make one forget that it’s a work of stage fiction.
Running Time: Approximately 81 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Profanity – recommended for adult audiences.
“Bright Half Life” plays through September 29 at Strand Theater Company, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore. For tickets call (443) 874-4917 or purchase online.